Recently I’ve been fascinated with the notion of the avatar—whether our Facebook picture or our IM Buddy icon or our actual videogame avatars. I’ve been playing on the Nintendo Wii and having way too much fun creating Miis… little cartoonish avatars that I can make from scratch and then play in games. But it’s a pretty interesting thing to consider on a deeper level—the attraction and increased ubiquity of avatars in a digital age.
In his essay, “Hyperidentities: Postmodern Identity Patterns in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games,” Miroslaw Filiciak argues that “on the Internet … we have full control over our own image—other people see us in the way we want to be seen.”
My question is this: To what extent are these avatars or online identities really “identities,” insofar as we recognize them as being in some way “us”? Do we see them as extensions of ourselves, or substitutes, or “one of many” variant, circumstantial identities? Do we empathize with our avatar as a function of being its creator and controller? Or as a result of its being our digital likeness and online persona?
“Identity” as an idea is complicated enough, but “postmodern identity” is another ball game entirely. Filiciak attempts to grasp the postmodern identity in his essay, citing people like Jean Baudrillard (identity is the “label of existence”), Michel Foucault (“self” is only a temporary construct), and Zygmunt Bauman, “the leading sociologist of postmodernism,” who argues that the postmodern identity “is not quite definite, its final form is never reached, and it can be manipulated.” This latter notion seems to be the crux of the matter—the idea that identity in this networked world is not fixed but fluid, ever and often malleable in our multitudinous postmodern existence.
Filiciak cites social psychologist Kenneth Gergen, who writes about how we exist “in the state of continuous construction and deconstruction.” While this is not a new idea (psychologist Erving Goffman argued, in his 1959 classic, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, that the presentation of self is a daily ongoing process of negotiation and information management, with the individual constantly trying to “perform” the image of themselves that they want others to see), it is nonetheless an idea which does seem ever more appropriate in this DIY, user-generated, “massively multiplayer” society.
The type of “self” we construct and deconstruct in everyday life, however, seems to me to be a subtly different thing than what we can and often do in videogame avatar creation. A primary attraction of avatar creation, I think, is that it allows us to create “selves” that are both our creation and our plaything, something that can be as near or far from us as we want. We can and often do construct “identities” that are far from who we are or would ever want to be in the “real” world. Why do we do this? Because we can. Where else can I create a detailed character—complete with eyes, nose, hair, lips, eyebrows, all proportioned to my curious heart’s content—who I not only have authored but can now control and “act as” in a simulated, interactive space?
I find it interesting that when I began to create my first Mii, my initial instinct was not to carefully craft a Mii in my image (I did do this later on, and found it rather boring), but rather to play around with the tools and manipulations at my disposal and create the weirdest looking, side-ponytail-wearing freak I could come up with. Given the opportunity to create any type of Mii, I had no inclination—and I never have, really—to create an avatar that is remotely like who I am (or who I think I am). Thus it strikes me as questionable whether avatars are primarily something that we are to empathize with, at least in the visual sense.
In a sense, my attraction to an avatar is not so much the ability to portray and empathize with a digital alternate to my self, as it is an empathy or affinity towards the ability to create and control this being. To create the avatar is—to me—the most enjoyable part of having one. Of all the things I’ve played on the Wii (sports, Mario Paper), Mii creating was definitely my favorite part. There is something very attractive to the idea of formulating a person from scratch—assembling features in bizarre and unnatural ways with no penalty for cruelty or ugliness. As Filiciak writes of the avatar creation of MMORPGs:
There is no need for strict diets, exhausting exercise programs, or cosmetic surgeries—a dozen or so mouse clicks is enough to adapt one’s ‘self’ to expectations. Thus, we have an opportunity to painlessly manipulate our identity, to create situations that we could never experience in the real world because of social, sex-, or race-related restrictions.
Indeed, if we view avatars as a sort of extension of our identity, then here is one case in which we truly can be anything we want to be.
We can also do anything we want to do, or at least things that are taboo or unthinkable in our real lives (play Grand Theft Auto for a good example of this). Here again we see that our empathy with the avatar occurs not just in what the avatar is, but perhaps more in what the avatar does, or is able to do at our command. Filiciak believes the freedom we have with the avatar “minimizes the control that social institutions wield over human beings,” and results not in chaos but liberation: “avatars are not an escape from our ‘self,’ they are, rather a longed-for chance of expressing ourselves beyond physical limitations … a postmodern dream being materialized.”
It’s an interesting notion, to be sure: the vaguely Freudian idea that who we really are (our true identity) can be realized only when the many limitations of everyday life are removed (as in a game). Gonzalo Frasco, in his essay “Simulation versus Narrative,” makes a similar point about how videogames allow for a place where “change is possible”—a form of entertainment providing “a subversive way of contesting the inalterability of our lives.”
I think that the ability to transgress the limitations and inalterability of our real lives is an especially important attraction of the avatar. But within this ability of the avatar (to be and do things that are beyond the scope of our real lives), I think, lies the very limitations of our identification with it. It seems that what draws us to the avatar is the very thing which ultimately alienates us from it. If true empathy is possible with the user and his avatar, he must first get past the fact that this digital incarnation of “self” can do (and is really meant to be) substantively different than we are—unbound by the many limitations (physical, emotional, cultural, etc) which mark our existence.
The pleasure we derive from our relation to an avatar, then, seems to be less about empathy or identification than creative control and interactivity. With my Mii creations, for example, my enjoyment came from the ability to create in any way I wanted—to play God in some small way. There was little in the Miis that I could relate to my own identity; little I could really empathize with. But I still enjoyed creating, changing, and controlling them. This reflects a tension that is, in my mind, central to the videogame experience. It is the tension between the “anything is possible” freedom of virtual worlds and the user’s desire for empathy. The former may produce the higher levels of fun and gameplay, but the latter is a fundamental human longing. And I believe the two are negatively correlated: as “anything is possible” increases, the opportunity for empathy decreases, simply because limitation—as opposed to unbounded freedom—is what we know. It’s our human frame of reference.